Scandal in the Night The Reckless Brides Online - Elizabeth Essex

Chapter One

Wimbourne Chase, Hampshire

Early summer, 1830

In India, there was an ancient proverb: Pilgrims seldom come home saints.

Thomas Jellicoe stood as the proof. He had been a pilgrim in the wide, wicked world for so many years he had long ago lost his faith—misplaced on some dusty, less-traveled roadside—and he had all but forgotten how to find his wandering way home.

He could only stand before the ancient lodge gate like a supplicant, and hope he had finally come to the place where—no matter how long he had been gone, or what he had done—they would finally let him in.

“My God, Thomas! Is that you?”

Thomas shaded his eyes against the unfamiliar, dazzlingly clear English sunshine and hoped the man hailing him across the lawn of the walled courtyard was his older brother, James, Viscount Jeffrey, the owner of this ancient estate. The years had wrought so many changes, Thomas couldn’t be sure.

Nothing was familiar. Not the lush, verdant English countryside. Not the large, ancient manor house beyond the lodge gate. Not the tight, constricting English clothes he wore, not even the language he was trying to force out of his mouth.

“James.” His voice sounded rough and frayed, tattered around the edges, and he knew he must appear as disreputable and worn as he felt. What if his brother, his own flesh and blood, didn’t recognize him? It had been so long, he’d forgotten himself.

He could only stand on the locked side of the gate and hope that despite his rough demeanor, his brother would recognize him enough to gain him admission.

His brother the viscount did peer hard through the barred barrier of the gate before his face finally lightened in recognition. “Thomas. It is you. It’s been too long.” His brother’s voice was thick with emotion, and in another moment, the gates were unlocked and flung open, and Thomas found himself enveloped in a crushing, bruisingly heartfelt embrace. “You ought to have sent word you were coming. You ought— But no matter. Everyone is here.” James clapped him on the shoulder, and then drew back to survey him head to toe. “Look at you. God, but it’s good to have you back. Welcome home, Thomas. Welcome home.”

Was it home?

It ought to be good to be back in England. It had been too long. In India, the monsoon season would have started, bringing endless curtains of lukewarm, swampy rain and steaming brown mud. In Hampshire, the sun was shining in the glittering, cool air and every color was shocking in its sharp, crystalline brilliance. The English trees were a thousand different shades of deep, leafy green, and the sky shone a diamond bright blue.

But how could it be home when everything was so foreign and new?

“Good Lord.” James gestured to the crumpled saddlebag the gate porter passed to one of the footmen, while a stable hand led Thomas’s mount away toward the stable block. “Is that all your baggage? After all these years, you return with less than you took? I expected chests of rubies at the very least.”

“The rubies are to follow.” Thomas tried to answer with something approximating his usual wry humor. “I rode. From Liverpool. I was on my way to Downpark, but I stopped at an inn at Sixpenny Handley and heard your name mentioned.”

“Not in vain, I hope?” James joked. “Liverpool? What on earth were you doing there? I thought you were meant to be in India all these years? Never mind—what matters is you’re here, at last. Come in, come in.”

“Thank you.”

James kept a loose hold of Thomas’s arm as he pulled him across the lawn of the forecourt, as though, after so long an absence, he wasn’t prepared to let go. As if he wanted to make sure Thomas didn’t disappear for another fifteen-odd years before he made it into the safe confines of the house.

It was touching to find he had been missed. The tight weariness loosened its grip on his chest.

“We’ll go straight out.” Instead of ushering him into the house, James was leading him through an arched passageway in the wall that led to the open park beyond. “The whole family is out on the west lawn—all of them but William and his family—so it’s a good thing you didn’t go home to Downpark, for they’re all here, Father and Mother, and the others. We’re having a bit of a garden party. Strawberries and cream with the children. You’ve come just in time for Annabel’s christening.”

Thomas slowed before the archway. “Annabel?”

“My youngest, born while